Wilderness a long time in the making

What an honor to be chosen by The Wilderness Society to attend the signing of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act at the White House.

I started volunteering on the effort to designate wilderness in California’s Eastern Sierra in 1986 when the Forest Service issued a draft land management plan for its lands there. That plan called for developing a ski area in the headwaters of the Owens River, the river system made famous in the movie “Chinatown,” starring Jack Nicholson.

The plan also proposed that many roadless areas not be protected to retain their “roadless” values but instead be open to motorized recreation, logging, mining and other uses. Among the places threatened were several hundred thousand acres of roadless areas in the iconic White Mountains, which are home to the world’s oldest trees, the ancient bristlecone pines.

Over the years, many local groups and individuals fought successfully to prevent development in these roadless areas and on neighboring Bureau of Land Management lands. We defeated a proposed ski area expansion, the logging of old growth trees, salvage logging, mining proposals and more.

Then in 1999, I began working for The Wilderness Society. My first day on the job involved going before our Board of Supervisors to fight an “anti-wilderness” resolution brought forward by motorized groups. We lost 3-2. It’s amazing to think of how far we have come in the past ten years since I began working fulltime on this campaign.

Tim Alpers, a third-generation rancher, fish farmer and former Mono County Supervisor, attended the ceremony with me. Tim has been a longtime Wilderness Society partner in our multi-year effort to get wilderness designated in the Eastern Sierra. It was a delight to be able to share this special day with him. After the bill’s signing, Tim sprinted up to President Obama to shake his hand. Tim, a former basketball coach, put a smile on the President’s face by talking hoops with him.

Our Congressman, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, gave us a tour of rooms adjoining the East Room, each room with a different color scheme – the green room, the red room, the blue room, the white room. We took photos of one another to share with wilderness supporters back home.

It was thrilling to hear our President speaking about the importance of land protection to all Americans, no matter what their background or circumstances. I can’t help but think that his signing this visionary and broadly supported piece of legislation so early in his term will inspire the President to consider additional land conservation measures in the future.

The most meaningful part of attending the signing ceremony was knowing that I represented the many hundreds of local people who have helped to designate wilderness in the Eastern Sierra, many of them watching online back at home.

I know how excited they were to witness this historic day. Some of us have been working for more than 20 years to see Eastern Sierra wild lands designated as wilderness.

We successfully fought the expansion of a ski area in 1988, though the long-term threat of expansion remained all these years; now this former roadless area is the pristine Owens River Headwaters Wilderness. The spectacular Hoover Wilderness Additions near Sonora Pass was included in the California Wilderness Act that passed the House in 1984 but not in the Senate version; as a result it was dropped from the 1984 legislation at the last minute. Now, it is protected wilderness. A good portion of the White Mountains has now been designated wilderness.

These and other places will remain forever wild thanks to the efforts of many citizens.

On a bittersweet note, Andrea Mead Lawrence, a double Olympic Gold medalist in skiing (1952) and a lead Eastern Sierra conservationist, passed away the night the bill was signed after a long battle with cancer. Andrea inspired me and so many others to do the work we do. As an outspoken environmental advocate and the lone woman member of the Mono County Board of Supervisors for 16 years, Andrea stood her ground in defense of wild places and helped protect places such as Mono Lake. Andrea was at every one of the many public hearings held on our wilderness bill in the past year. Through her courage and leadership by example, Andrea made us all believe that anything is possible if you stand up for what you believe in.

The passage of this bill is not only about protecting land, it’s about the many passionate people who love where they live and who have toiled for countless years on behalf of the nation’s wild places.